Fred Kowal: Broken Words, Broken Treaties

Sep 10, 2019

Labor Day has passed, and the common expression is that summer is unofficially over. I reject that statement; I’ll go with the astronomical calendar because I want as much summer as possible! However, a clearer sign that the season is changing is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of students at the SUNY campuses at which members of United University Professions serve. The fall semester is underway and the faculty and staff at our 30-plus campuses are undertaking their sacred work of building wisdom-seeking communities.

My work as UUP president doesn’t leave me time to be in the classroom, working with colleagues to build a learning community that provides a foundation for our students’ future. I miss that. But, as UUP president, I have a unique opportunity to help build that future in other ways. Sometimes, it involves work that seems far removed from the usual duties of an academic in higher education.

Over the summer, my wife and I took a trip to Southern Utah and Western Colorado. Though we had wonderful days in several national parks, we were most impressed during the two days we spent at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

This spectacular region was set aside as a National Monument by President Obama late in his second term, under the provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act – signed into law by the great Republican conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt. Hundreds of national monuments have been created under the Antiquities Act, recognizing historic, cultural and natural sites.

President Obama created Bears Ears after hearing from nearby Native American nations, for whom the territory contains spiritually important sites and locations where Native ceremonies must be conducted. In addition to the monument’s religious necessity, there is the stunning natural beauty of the area. Having traveled to nearly all of America’s national parks, I can honestly say that few are more spectacular than Bears Ears.

Unfortunately, in his unending effort to undo everything his predecessor did, Donald Trump sharply reduced Bears Ears in December 2017, from the 1.3 million acres Obama dedicated to it to a paltry 228,000 acres. Further, he divided it, excluding areas important to Native Americans, while also initiating plans to open it to uranium mining and natural gas exploitation.

A coalition of native nations and environmental groups have sued in federal court to stop what they see as a constitutional abuse of power by Trump. No federal law allows the president to reduce a national monument, only to create them. Only Congress can alter the borders of federal land holdings.

What does all this have to do with my past academic work and the work I do now as UUP president? Regarding the former, I always started my Intro to Native American Studies course with a brief talk about the content of the course. It was difficult material, as much of it dealt with heinous acts committed by the U.S. against native nations. These actions were in the past. I insisted that students understand that our nation has a flawed history, but that responsibility for the actions of the past resides with those in the past. Our responsibility is to insure that today, our nation lives up its ideals and its word.

Bears Ears is native land. It is land that tribal nations have sovereignty over. Our nation has violated hundreds of treaties with native peoples. But the law remains: Native nations are to be treated as sovereign over treaty land.

Beyond this, the idea embraced by generations of Americans going back to Teddy Roosevelt’s time has been to preserve our national heritage, represented by special places, for our descendants. UUP’s members work to build a future for our students and the patients we serve in SUNY’s hospitals. This sacred work is no different than our union standing with our fellow Americans – the original Americans – in defending our common heritage. Such defense calls forth the best in all of us.

I remain hopeful that Donald Trump, members of his administration, and Republicans in Congress – political inheritors of Roosevelt’s legacy – will see the error of their ways and return Bears Ears to the status created by President Obama.

If not, let’s hope the federal courts do the right thing.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

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